Do you know why we struggle with assertiveness?
We’ve all probably thought to ourselves “I wish I could say no!” Well-meaning friends say “you need to be more assertive.” and “you need to learn how to say no.” Why do we struggle with assertiveness and the inability to say ‘NO’?
By never saying ‘NO’ we very can very quickly end up feeling resentful towards others. You know — that family member or colleague constantly asking for “just one last favour.” And we frequently let the priorities of others take precedence over our own.
A lot of the time, we don’t want to upset anyone, or make someone think less of us. We don’t want to make people angry towards us, and perhaps we just feel uncomfortable saying the word ‘NO’. But I think mostly, we want to make a good impression i.e. at work we’ll take on extra work, even when our in-tray’s already full. And when we meet new friends, we agree to do things we don’t particularly want to do, we say ‘YES’ anyway.
We let people run rings round us. We feel overwhelmed, put upon, used, frustrated, tired or stressed. So, why do we do it to ourselves?
What does assertive mean?
The Cambridge English Dictionary says “Someone who is assertive behaves confidently, and is not frightened to say what they want or believe. Similarly, the Collins English Dictionary writes that “Someone who is assertive states their needs and opinions clearly, so that people listen, and take notice.
Assertiveness then, according to Skills you need, is a skill regularly referred to in social and communication skills training. Being assertive means being able to stand up for your own or other people’s rights in a calm and positive way, without being either aggressive, or passively accepting ‘wrong’.
In other words: Assertiveness means standing up for your personal rights – expressing thoughts, feelings and beliefs in direct, honest and appropriate ways. It is important to note also that: By being assertive we should always respect the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of other people. Those who behave assertively always respect the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of other people as well as their own.
Assertiveness is a healthy way of communicating. It’s the ability to speak up for ourselves in a way that’s respectful and authentic. Most days, we’re in situations where being assertive helps us — like asking someone out, approaching a professor with a question, or doing well on a university, promotion or new job interview.
Passive, assertive or aggressive
There are various ways we can behave or respond to others, particularly when there’s conflict i.e. in a passive, assertive or aggressive manner.
Passive behaviour generally means we put up with situations where we feel awkward, rather than being honest and saying what we think. We tend to apologise for our own views and put ourselves down rather than expressing them positively. “Sorry, I know I’m not very good at this. I probably agree with you really.”
Being assertive means being
- honest with yourself and others, stating your own views authentically, clearly and concisely
- self-confident and positive but not headstrong and contradictory, just for the sake of it
- firm in expressing your opinion but, at the same time, understanding others’ views and being prepared to reach a workable compromise and
- able stand up for your own rights and beliefs without dismissing the rights or opinions of others
Being aggressive in your communication with others is asserting your rights regardless of how others feel. You want to get your own way, even at the expense of others. Aggressive behaviour tends to have control at its heart.
Do you struggle with assertiveness?
- wish you could turn down another request to babysit, stay late at work or run yet another tombola stall for your kids’ school?
- become frustrated because you can’t make yourself heard above all the other ‘smart people’, even when you know you’re right?
- do you wish you could put your hand up in school or work when people are asking questions and you know the answer?
- lack the skills to disagree with others, even though you know they’re wrong?
- feel that your views or opinions are not respected because you don’t command respect when you speak?
- wish you could perform better in social situations, and know that you need better communications skills?
This list is not exhaustive but if you answered yes to any of the above, it seems likely that you struggle with assertiveness.
What to do when you struggle with assertiveness
Being assertive means being direct about what you think, want, need, feel or believe — in a way that’s respectful to others. Being assertive can help in expressing your feelings, speaking assertively and can help manage conflict with others. It can build your self-confidence and improve relationships in every area. So here are a few ways to assert yourself in a kind but firm manner.
First, make the decision to assert yourself from here on in, and because you’ve committed to it, stick to it. Honestly it does get easier. And you’ll wonder why you never did it sooner.
- Practice saying ‘NO’, in the mirror, or practice with a good friend. Have them ask you for favours and keep saying ‘NO’ without offering any reason or excuse. Remember, you don’t have to feel guilty for saying NO, and your decision does not need an explanation! You can say “No. not today Philomena,” if you feel you have to elaborate. Don’t hesitate, pause or waver. The second you say “Err! No. I can’t because…….” or “Erm, I think I’m busy that day…….” you’re giving the other person a ‘way in’ i.e. “Oh, go on. Please? You can do your essay any day. Please, I’m desperate.” You say “I said ‘NO‘ Anyway, how are you, how’s work…… blah, blah, blah.” Again, it gets easier with practice, trust me.
- Use the “NO, but….” if you must i.e. “NO, I can’t stay late tonight but I’ll get onto it as soon as I come in tomorrow.” or “NO, I’m not babysitting for you again this weekend but why don’t you ask ………..?”
- Stay calm, always. Breathe, look the other person in the eye, keep your face relaxed (smiling helps me stay calm and my face more relaxed) and speak in a pleasant but firm voice. You can smile, and still say ‘NO’, in a way that doesn’t look condescending or like you’re being sarcastic. It can be really hard knowing what to do if someone’s being aggressive towards you. It’s easy to get angry yourself, but if you can remain calm and assertive it’s more likely the situation won’t escalate, and you might be able to resolve the problem.
- Remember that your time is as precious and valuable as the next person. Ensure you give yourself say half a day before accepting any further tasks, requests, or invites. There’s no reason to answer immediately, and waiting a while gives you time to think about whether it’s something that’s really worth your effort and time. Does it suit your plans, do you really want to tag along like a third wheel, what will you get out of it? If you fancy saying ‘NO’ after your half day, the person who asked the favour, should understand. You showed that you thought about their request and in turn they ought to respect your decision.
- Avoid guilt trips. Stay honest and tell others how you feel or what you want without making accusations or making them feel guilty, like “it’s your fault …….” or “if you didn’t do/say, I’d be……..”
- Use the ‘I’ word, like “I felt sad when you said/did”, and “I think what you said/did was …….” Avoid statements like “You never take the bins out” cos I’m sure they have done sometimes or “You always …….” ‘cos this might not be true, and it comes across as aggressive.
- Think about your communication skills and ask yourself honestly, do I have to work on them? Communicating effectively can help you build excellent relationships with the people around you and help develop your self-confidence. How do you come across to others? How do others come across to you? Watch people you admire when they’re communicating. See how they draw people to them and whether you can employ some of their skills.
- Think about the attributes or characteristics you would like to have, and learn how to develop them i.e. compassion, empathy, kindness and emotional intelligence. Learn about and understand emotions and feelings and how you can best use them to benefit yourself and others around you.
Of course, there are many other ways to develop assertiveness and there are lots of online resources you might find helpful. Just remember that being assertive can help reduce feelings of frustration and anger and can be empowering. Let people know how you feel, what you want and what you need to happen to get it. I love this last piece from Teachonomy
Only Say YES to What Matters Most
Everyone has a finite amount of time they can say yes in each season of life. Don’t waste them! First, define what matters most in your life. For most of us that would be our family and friends, however it can be just about anything you find to be important. Second, before you say yes to something make sure to ask a few questions. Will saying yes to this
- take away time from my family and close friends or hobbies?
- affect other obligations I have?
- take away from furthering the skills and knowledge I actually want or need?
If your answer to these questions is yes, than you might consider saying ‘NO’ to the question, favour or invitation.
Over to you
Has anything in this article resonated with you, and do you think it’s been helpful? Have you ever had difficulty in saying ‘NO’ and will you at least try to practice saying ‘NO’? Either in the mirror or with a trusted friend? I look forward to any comments, questions, insights or constructive criticism.